Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, has announced a tender for disposing of reactor cores from the K-27 submarine, which was itself scuttled by the Soviet Navy in the Kara Sea four decades ago.
The tender speaks specifically of preparing for dismantlement and disassembly the spent removable cores from the reactor of the project 645 (item 64) nuclear submarine. These removable parts, which were removed in 1967, are currently located at the Gremikha storage base in Russia’s Murmansk region.
The tender also demands the preparation of cassettes of these irradiated parts in order to transport them to a federal nuclear fleet storage point, from where they will be sent for processing. The price tag for the task is 500 million rubles, about $6.7 million.
Anatoly Grigoriev, head of international technical assistance projects at Rosatom, confirmed that the tender refers to the removable reactor cores from the K-27, which were extracted in 1967. After unloading, the cores were deposited at the Gremikha base.
“It is worth noting that the publication of the tender has attracted a lot of attention and caused contradictory interpretations,” said Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s offices in Murmansk. “First, it is not clear why a submerged nuclear submarine is called ‘scrapped.’ Secondly, it was not clear how it was possible to prepare for the disposal of spent removable parts of a nuclear submarine that lies at the bottom of the Kara Sea, when the decision to lift it has not yet been made. ”
The K-27 was sunken intentionally in the Kara Sea’s Stepovoy Bay in 1981. It is considered by experts to be especially dangerous thanks to its liquid metal cooled reactors.
At the time, the submarine was prepared for flooding by filling it with bitumen, concrete and furfural. But it’s likely that these substances left pockets of air, which would allow for the formation of condensation within the sunken hull.
The submarine has been included as a priority on a federal list of sunken objects to be lifted from the seabed. The urgency owes to the high enrichment of the K-27’s nuclear fuel and the shallow 33-meter depth at which it lies. The furfural-combination filler used to seal the sub before its sinking also has a limited shelf-life, and is only guaranteed to last another few years. Some experts also fear that the nuclear fuel onboard the sub could undergo a spontaneous chain reaction should they be breached by water.
Discussion among Russian officials on lifting various pieces of nuclear debris from the Arctic has heated up in recent years. In 2019, a group of Russian scientists collected, systematized and analyzed data on each of these sunken nuclear and radiation hazards and identified the most dangerous among them. The K-27 is listed as one of six such hazards requiring lifting within a federal effort called the “Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation until 2035.”
The problem is that lifting the flooded objects is an extremely difficult task, as shown by the years-long effort to raise the Kursk nuclear submarine, which sank during a naval exercise in 2000, killing all 118 crew members.
Russian scientists have weighed the options for lifting the hazards and calculated possible damages should the operations fail. The consequences could be serious, involving releases of radiation into the sea and air, with contamination possibly surpassing Russia’s borders.
At the moment, engineers are designing a vessel capable of lifting these sunken radiation hazards from the sea floor, with construction of a recovery ship projected by the end of 2026. Lifting and dismantling the K-27 thereafter is expected to take from 2028 to 2013.
According to Rosatom, the total activity of the sunken radiation hazards in the Kara and Barents Seas is 1 million Curie. According to preliminary estimates of Russian specialists, they can all be extracted within 12 years.